SAMANTHA POWER, "Chasing the Flame"

Thank you.

Yes, my husband Cass Sunstein has driven up with me from Boston to make sure I answer no questions on the transition team. He ‘s also equipped me with all sorts of platitudes to use in the event that I ever get asked questions about President Obama. I am supposed to say “He will consider all the variables. One of the variables is that he will consider is how many of the variables to consider in considering all the variables.” I’m not sure how well these lines fit with being a fiery Irish redhead but I am hoping to begin to absorb that way of speaking. It will make your time less fun, certainly.

It is a great honor to be here in Portsmouth. I knew a little bit about this event and the honor of getting this invitation before getting up here, but driving up with Chuck and Stephanie I have learned a lot more.

What struck me when I first heard about the negotiations here years ago, read a little more about it before coming here -- and certainly strikes me most now, becoming more familiar with them than I ever thought possible, having heard about them from having spent time with Chuck – there’s recognition in that laughter. Yes it is a subject of some interest to Chuck, it seems. There are two aspects of these negotiations I think I’d like to draw upon for the next half hour, 45 minutes.

One is the indispensable role of citizen and community in the peace that was brokered with the help of Portsmouth and with the help of Teddy Roosevelt. There’s a way in which as citizens we tend to talk about foreign policy as this kind of remote, statist, abstract, distant thing. What was amazing about that sequence of those negotiations was the degree to which this community was at the center of negotiations. It wasn’t something held away from Americans as if it was something kind of above all of our pay grade.

The second and kind of more obvious feature of the negotiations at this time in our country’s history in particular seems worth stressing up front, which is simply the absolute indispensability of diplomacy as a tool of American power. The idea that people of late have sort of talked about diplomacy on the one hand and power [on the other]. The force of diplomacy when it’s done well -- deftly, patiently and with American values and a commitment to peace at its core -- should not be understated.

The book that Doris was kind enough to blurb -- it’s a bad sign, by the way, when you’re on the phone with a person who has been your blurber. You sort of shouldn’t reveal that because then you know the “fix is in” on the blurb if you’re actually talking to her on the phone -- and I was spotted by the Japanese Consul General at a baseball game with her. The blurb is still completely valid even though we go to Red Sox games together.

But that book is called Chasing the Flame and it’s about a man I’ll talk about today: Sergio Vieira de Mello, a man I like to describe as “the most important man you’ve never heard of.” And certainly the most important man most people have never heard of. But the title of the book “Chasing the Flame” I think is apt also in this setting because when I think of chasing the flame you think or I think first of the flame of ideals : sort of pursuing a set of ideals greater than oneself – that’s the flame out there. Second of course, it’s a flame, it burns, so there’s risk taking quality in chasing the flame, going near it. As I describe Sergio’s life you’ll see that sort of literally at play, but in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own families, pursuing ideals entails other kinds of risk. It’s not always mortal risk, risk of physical danger, but other kinds of risk: inherent in taking a stand.

And thirdly, I think the word ‘chasing’ suggests never quite reaching a destination, but somehow having the resiliency and the energy to kind of keep getting back up and trying again to keep up the chase of the flame. These are very key ingredients to diplomacy, to negotiations -- that resiliency, those ideals that must drive negotiations and the risk taking, fundamentally. Because getting in the room with people at war with one another or with whom the United States for instance is not well disposed is risky, is politically risky and it can be physically risk as well.  There’s also a risk in taking up the cause of drawing attention back to these negotiations. Chuck, I don’t know how your family reacted when you first presented them with this idea, but what can come to look very obvious 15-20 years later is usually not obvious at all at the start. So Chuck, thank you for being a chaser of the flame here in Portsmouth. Your passion and commitment to these principles is actually very inspiring for us visitors.

One thing that has struck me over the course of the past decade or so is that history is taught in ways, and thought about in ways, that are not currently tailored to the moment in our country’s history and our planet’s history.

What am I talking about? 

First, history is often taught as being static. When you read history books, there’s sort of a beginning, a middle and an end. One doesn’t see sometimes the false necessity in history when you end up at a particular destination. The idea that, “Of course there was going to be peace between the Russians and the Japanese in the early part of the last century. Well, of course, Why not?” Well no, it turns out individuals were involved in making that history happen.

Second I think history is taught in a very statist way and is thought about in that way, from right when you’re a little kid, looking at the history books and seeing countries turn different colors on the history map as empires sweep this way and that way. It’s countries that are invading other countries. Again, the individuals are removed from our perspective, from our point of view. In ways, that give us a distorted picture about how historical events unfold and how progress and change happen.

Thirdly, and this is one of the things that drove my last book, The Problem form Hell, about America’s responses to genocide. History has long been taught in terms of perpetrators and victims. And what I was struck by in my early twenties was the degree to which so few of us feel as though we’re going to be perpetrators; and most of us hope we’re never going to be victims. Some may feel because of their position in our own society that they can identify with victims, some can feel that more than others, depending on their own ethnic or religious heritage and their own plight in the current, in the democracy that we have.  But it struck me that most of us live, actually in a different space, and that is the space not between perpetrators and victims but between bystander and, potentially, ‘upstander,’ to coin a term. The question of how we relate to this history that goes on around us, or to matters of injustice, is really something we deal with on a day to day basis, even if we don’t notice much of the time – that those decisions are available to us one way or the other and the tradeoffs inherent in those decisions.

The fourth dimension of history as it’s currently consumed and as it’s propagated is that I’m not sure the history books that young people  -- graduate students I teach at the Kennedy School at Harvard – I’m not sure they prepare future citizens for the complexity – the moral complexity as well as the political and economic and sociological complexity of what lies out there.


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